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Alzheimers' is a progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behavior. It affects an estimated 4 million American Adults, over 120,000 individuals in the San Francisco Bay Area and- my grandmother.
More than 100,000 Americans die as a result annually, making it the fourth leading cause of death in adults after heart disease, cancer and strokes.
Alzheimers' is an illness that develops gradually. Remembering recent events and performing familiar tasks with difficulty are early symptoms. The afflicted may encounter confusion, personality change, altered behavior and judgement. They may have trouble finding words, finishing thoughts or following directions. How quickly the changes occur will differ from person to person. Unfortunately, the disease eventually leaves its victims completely unable to care for themselves.
I remember the first time I realized that my grandmother was indeed stricken with this terrible malady. I must have been fifteen years old at the time, an event I still refuse to accept. My mother and I had just picked her up at her care home for the elderly to take her out to dinner. This was our Sunday ritual but unlike every other Sunday, something had changed. Maybe it was my grandmothers' unusual passiveness or, perhaps it was the look of emptiness in her eyes. Maybe it was the question she asked repeatedly, "Where are we going?"
Whatever the reason, I was furious with her. I was angry because I could not comprehend what was happening. When she continued to ask questions over and over, I would say, "I just told you. Don't you remember? You asked that already nana." I was in the back seat of the car losing my mind. I was ready to scream at her. But don't you see? Her mind was the one that was lost- slowly diminishing. She was soon to become a child and I would become an adult at the age of fifteen.
There were several lessons that I was forced to learn relating to her condition. For example, I would have to know how to take care oh her every need, needs that only infants should possess. Everyday functions she no longer could attempt. I never thought that life would bring her to this point of helplessness. Now she was weak and I was strong, a role reversal that never should have happened. She was always in control but now, her illness has suppressed the authority she once held over her own body. There were many lessons, some easier than others but, the hardest lesson was learning how to lie.
I remember when my grandmother asked about my grandfather. She wanted to know if he would be joining us for our family get together. I said, "No. Papa died eight years ago. Don't you remember?" As I spoke those words, I realized what I had done. At that moment it was as if she had just been informed of his death. She buried her eyes into her hands and sobbed for the man she perceived to be alive. I didn't realize that telling her would bring this much pain. My God, she was greiving all over again.
The next weekend, she asked about my grandfather once more. She said, "Will Dale be here?" I couldn't bear to tell the truth. All I could say was, "No nana, He won't be here today." An hour passed and she asked again. All I could do was repeat my answer while trying to conceal my tears.
Now six years later, my grandmothers' condition has worsened. It is heartbreakiing when she doesn't recognize me or know my name. It is extremely difficult to take her fragile hand, look into her questioning eyes to say, "I am your granddaughter Jodie." I miss the coherent conversations we once had when I was younger, before she became ill. I miss the woman she once use to be because the woman I know now doesn't know me.